The structure of the Senate has not always favored Republicans. But in recent decades, heavily white and rural communities have moved to the political right. Because these communities dominate many small states, and because small states enjoy a lot of power in the Senate, it now has a large pro-Republican bias.
So how have Democrats nonetheless won control of the Senate, allowing them to pass an ambitious bill last week that will reduce poverty, lift middle-class incomes, cut the cost of health insurance and more? There are two main answers.
First, the Democratic Party has been the more popular political party nationwide for most of the past three decades, and this national edge sometimes allows it to overcome the Senate’s built-in bias. Last year, Joe Biden won the popular vote by 4.4 percentage points. That was enough for him to win exactly half of the country’s 50 states and for Democratic Senate candidates to flip seats in Arizona and Georgia.
The second answer is more succinct: Joe Manchin and Jon Tester.
Manchin, a Democratic senator from West Virginia, and Tester, a Democratic senator from Montana, have managed a remarkable feat in today’s polarized political atmosphere. They have won elections in states that usually vote by wide margins for the other party. The only other current politician with a similar track record is Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine.
Consider this chart, which shows how each state voted in the 2020 presidential election along with the party affiliation of the state’s two senators:
Manchin’s success is unlike anyone else’s. In a state that Hillary Clinton lost by 42 percentage points and Biden lost by 39 points, Manchin is undefeated in six statewide elections.
Without him, there would be no Democratic Senate right now and no $1.9 trillion virus relief law. It’s unclear how many of Biden’s cabinet nominees would have been defeated and how successful the president would be at putting federal judges on the bench.
Manchin, who is 73, is a frequent subject of criticism from the political left. A recent example involved his insistence that the relief bill increase unemployment benefits by less than most Democrats favored — a stance that will hurt some of Manchin’s own constituents, as critics noted. Another example, as Bloomberg’s Joshua Green recently recalled: “His 2010 Senate victory was powered by a memorable television ad in which the NRA-endorsed Manchin pulled out a rifle and shot Barack Obama’s climate bill, vowing, ‘I’ll always defend West Virginia.’”
But it seems clear that Manchin’s occasional, high-profile breaks with the Democratic Party allow him to overcome the party’s terrible image there and win elections. He often does not even demand large policy changes: The final virus relief bill was nearly identical in size to Biden’s initial proposal.
Could there be others?
Few things in American politics are as valuable to a party as people like Manchin, Tester and Collins. And finding more such politicians is even more important to the Democratic Party because of the Senate’s pro-Republican bias.
As Matthew Yglesias writes in his Substack newsletter, addressing progressives: “If you don’t want your governing agenda perpetually held hostage to Joe Manchin (or for a majority to be out of reach if Manchin retires in 2024), then you need to win Senate races in right-of-center states like Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, Texas and Florida that just aren’t as right-wing as West Virginia.”
How Democrats might do so — or how Republicans might replicate Collins — is a complex subject. But it’s one of the most fascinating, consequential questions in politics, and it will be an occasional theme in this newsletter over coming months.
What’s next? Climate, in part. Slate’s Nitish Pahwa argues that the decline of coal may make Manchin more open to climate legislation than he used to be. And Manchin told Mike Allen of Axios that he would push for tax increases on corporations and the wealthy to help pay for Biden’s clean-energy and infrastructure initiatives.
Related: Democrats hope that the popularity of the virus relief bill will help them avoid the losses that a president’s party usually suffers in midterm elections, The Times’s Jonathan Martin writes.
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Other Big Stories
County officials in coastal North Carolina will vote today on whether to raise property taxes to help save a main road from rising seas.
Shelters in Mexico are struggling to house migrants expelled from the U.S., as more people seek to cross. And the U.S. is scrambling to manage the increase of children crossing the border alone. Neither crisis is abating.
Law enforcement agencies dismissed violence linked to the Proud Boys as street brawling without a strategy — until the attack on the Capitol.
Voting-rights advocates are waging the most consequential political struggle over access to the ballot in decades. Can it succeed?
Women in Britain are demanding safety from male violence after the disappearance and death of Sarah Everard, 33, in London. A social movement has sprung up, which “feels different this time,” The Times’s Amanda Taub writes.
Senator Mitt Romney of Utah is urging American spectators, companies and diplomats to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, to punish China for its human rights abuses. He favors that approach over an athlete boycott.
Elite private schools masquerade as hubs of social change but actually deepen inequality, and they have become indefensible, Caitlin Flanagan writes in The Atlantic.
“Most local papers are gasping for life, and if they die it will be their readers who lose the most,” the Florida novelist Carl Hiaasen writes in his last column for The Miami Herald.
A Morning read: How the sale of a Fifth Avenue townhouse became an international debacle.
Lives Lived: Marvelous Marvin Hagler was one of boxing’s great middleweight champions. His awesome punching power helped him win 62 bouts — 52 by knockouts. He died at 66.
The brackets are back
After missing a year because of the pandemic, the N.C.A.A.’s annual March Madness basketball tournament is back this week. The favorites include Gonzaga, Baylor and multiple teams from the Big Ten conference, like Michigan and Illinois. No Big Ten team has won the tournament since 2000, our colleague Alan Blinder notes.
For everyone who will be filling out a bracket, here are a few tips:
Victor Mather recommends checking the betting odds for first-round games. Lower-seeded teams are sometimes the favorites. (Here are more tips from Victor.)
Ed Feng at FiveThirtyEight has found that preseason polls, which gauge a team’s raw potential, predict a team’s success in the tournament better than some end-of-season rankings.
Josh Katz and Kevin Quealy of The Times suggest looking for games on which the public and the experts disagree. “If you think the nerds know something the public doesn’t, those kinds of outcomes represent good opportunities,” Kevin told us.
Here’s a link to a printable version of the bracket. The N.C.A.A. will release the bracket for the women’s tournament tonight (we’ll have a link in tomorrow’s newsletter).
For more: Alan looks at the tournament changes that the N.C.A.A. has made to cope with the pandemic.
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